Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Researching a Novel on Monhegan Island

Earlier this month, I spent a week on Monhegan Island researching my novel. Off season the mail boat goes only a few times a week from Port Clyde. It was a rough one hour ride in eight-foot seas and pouring rain. Even one of the crew got sick, but my husband was in his element. Henry's father, a former merchant navy captain, once told him that the best cure for seasickness is to sit under a tree. Henry (in orange topside) had come for the weekend to help me settle into my solitary retreat.

The only other visitors to the island were migrating birds (loads of warblers!) and intrepid birders. Their accommodations were unheated and unpowered. The tourist season starts Memorial Day Weekend and runs through September. The rest of the year is lobster season.

I rented an attic apartment in a former boat house, which had propane, electricity and even wifi. My landlady, who lives below, runs the only grocery store and is the sternwoman on a lobster boat. Most of the 40 or so year-round residents work two jobs. Lisa answered many of my questions about island life.

Other answers came from watching the harbor out my window. I'd wondered how trucks got to the island since only passenger ferries service the island, docking at the wharf. This truck ferry unloads onto Fish Beach. It idles until the truck is ready to leave. Good thing I packed ear plugs!

I watched the lobstermen without leaving my desk. One of my characters works the stern in his dad's lobster boat. He lives on an island that resembles Monhegan but with a larger population. I needed more teen characters in a young adult novel!

I'd wondered about the one-room school house on other visits to the island. This time I wanted to peek inside, but I'd had no luck tracking down the teacher online.

After my husband left the island, I hiked up the cliff to paint...

... the beautiful landscape?

Feeling discouraged, I decided to check out the new Monhegan Brewing Company. The delicious beer was served in seven ounce tasters as well as in pints. It was full bodied and smooth. My favorite was the Trap Stacker Special Ale with a hint of molasses. By happy coincidence, I ran into an author friend Paul Doiron and met his wife Kristen Lindquist, an avid birder and talented poet-blogger. The whole state of Maine sometimes feels like a small town.

Mary and Matt Weber of Monhegan Brewing Company

The proprietors shared their romantic story. Mary had moved to Monhegan after falling in love with Matt Weber, an island lobsterman. They'd opened the brewery last summer, offering tastings on weekends. On weekdays Mary teaches at the one-room school house while her husband is hauling lobsters. I'd found my elusive school teacher! It's Mary's last year teaching since she needs more time for the brewery. Matt answered my questions about island lobstering.

Mary invited me inside the one-room school house. It was bright, sunny and surprisingly up to date. All students have laptop computers supplied by the state. The video screen allowed the kids to collaborate with students at other island schools and for teachers to conference with one another. There's a stage with a piano and the kids' performances draw in all the islanders. The school currently has two half day preschoolers and one full day third grader. In past years, there were more kids, and the island would love to have more families.

Island educators Mary Weber and Jessie Campbell
Mary introduced me to Jessie Campbell, who used to teach at Monhegan and is now the coordinator for the Outer Islands Teaching and Learning Collaborative. Jessie shared her insights about island schools. Frenchboro and Isle au Haut have generations of lobstermen families, more like my imaginary island community. The lucky island kids gather to go on fieldtrips to the state capital, to the mountains, to Boston and even to Quebec. Educators visit the islands too. The kids go off-island for high school, like my narrative.

At Lobster Cove I photographed the house that was the inspiration for my character's home, although his is more modest. It's my dream house too. Can you see why this island inspires me?

Back "home," I watched storm clouds ripple the sea. The weather wasn't the best for painting watercolors, but I took many photos. I'll share the artsy ones in another post. I miss the island already.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Sarah,

Yes, we can see absolutely why you should wish to retreat here for any reason. How could one not fall in love with the beauty of he place and the sheer tranquility. So far removed from the madding crowds of the city, it seems like another world.

The islanders do sound like an intrepid bunch with great spirit. Life cannot be easy there but they do look cheerful and clearly are doing their best to create a life and a living for themselves.

Such a pity that there are not more children to take advantage of that wonderful school room. Such a lively place that cannot help but inspire its young people.

Kristen Lindquist said...

Enjoy seeing the images from your week-long sojourn on the island, Sarah. And love that your character lives in Jamie Wyeth's (and formerly Rockwell Kent's) house! I look forward to seeing more of your Monhegan photos.

Sarah Laurence said...

Jane and Lance, I knew you'd understand.

Kristen, I hadn't realized that was once Rockwell Kent's house or that Wyeth had lived there too. That makes it all the more special. I hope to run into you on another off season visit.

Barrie said...

It looks gorgeous and very conducive to creativity. I can't wait to read your novel, especially knowing how much of the local color will be dead-on accurate.

A Cuban In London said...

What a beauty of a post. Full of history, culture and that breath-taking landscape. No wonder you took out your brushes to paint! :-)


Greetings from London.

E Wein said...

the beauty of your everyday surroundings always makes me envious, but this post absolutely takes the cake! I am green. What a wonderful place. Please get the book written so you can share this amazing corner of America with a wider audience!

troutbirder said...

What a wonderful retreat! I love it and your description. Now getting there with 8 foot waves. No thank you. I'm a chicken landlubber that for sure....:)

tina said...

What good fortune to find the school teacher and an author friend. What a lovely way to research your book. Such a serene place.

Rose said...

Wow, this certainly beats doing research in a library all day! What a lovely place, and I'm glad you were able to finally meet the teacher as well as other locals. I know when I read a novel, it really makes a difference when the setting and characters sound authentic.

Your "dream house" looks so familiar--wasn't this used in a movie long ago? I'm going to be thinking of this all day until I remember the title:)

Anonymous said...

Sarah, the opening photo is full of atmosphere. That must have been a very enriching experience and I guess it brought a breath of fresh air to your research! "Sarah Laurence on Monhegan Island" surely looks happy. :)

I'm impressed by the equipment of the school and way of teaching, by the proprietors of the brewery and by the people who don't run away from the uneasy conditions of living in such an island.

Elizabeth said...

This is so thrilling.
What a fabulous setting for a novel. It looks a most fascinating and unspoiled place. These photos were wonderful. I was particularly taken with the exterior of the school house.
Good luck with the novel.

Jenn Jilks said...

This is delightful! I enjoyed this post very much. Much success with your work, although the research portion looks like play!!!!

Sarah Laurence said...

All, sorry to be so slow to reply. I was at my 25th college reunion. More about that later.

Barrie, thanks! I can’t wait to read The Disappearance of Emily H.

ACIL, Tina the best part of living in Maine is having such beautiful places at my doorstep.

Elizabeth Wein, I can’t tell you how happy it made me to read such encouraging words from you. I’m really looking forward to your Ethiopia pilot book. It will be quite a change of scenery from WWII Europe.

Troutbirder, I prefer calm seas too. I’m much happier on an island than on a boat, to be honest.

Rose, I’ve learned (see the second comment) that this is a famous artist house so maybe that’s why it’s familiar. I hate when I forget movie names too.

Petra, yes, it was a happy retreat, but you are right about Monhegan being a tough place to live year-round.

Elizabeth Wix, thanks! Many artists have traveled to the island to paint in summer.

Jenn, that’s why I love my work – it’s as much fun as a vacation sometimes. Mostly, though, I'm in my office typing for hours.

Amanda Summer said...

What a beautiful place to work on your book. Isolated landscapes appeal to me as well - I hope you accomplished a lot!

Donna said...

What a great little island! Some of those pictures of it are beautiful. (Not the one with the pile of trash or whatever, ha ha.) It's so neat that you go to these places for work and writing but that you get to relax and enjoy it too.

cynthia newberry martin said...

What a wonderful post--the photos (first four are my favorite), the place, and the peak into your writing life.

khaki said...

I have never heard that - sitting under a tree. Interesting. Who knew.
Incredible setting - I would imagine you got lots of inspiration. How lucky to have met the school teacher. Three kids! Wow. What will they do when she leaves?
Enjoyed the post. What a perfect setting- love the house as well as the name of the area- Lobster Cove. Yes, I can see why the island inspires you.

SallyAnne McCartin said...

Dear Sarah,

My family had a house on the island near the Wyeth home. My grandparents were painters and I spent summer vacations there, a whole summmer one teenaged year tending to my grandmother, and then my adult ones, my child in tow. It was and still is though the house no longer is in the family, the one place I think of as home. I look forward to reading your novel!

Sarah Laurence said...

All, sorry to be months late responding!

Amanda and Donna, it was a productive time.

Cynthia, your gorgeous Cape retreats inspired me to do the same.

kacky, they hired a new teacher before Mary left.

SallyAnn, welcome to my blog! What wonderful memories you must have of Monhegan. I'm sorry you lost your family home there; that must have been hard. I'm still working on my novel and will post periodic updates on this blog.

vanillasugarblog said...

thank you for bringing back much missed memories.
i need to get back there...soon!